Helen Vendler

Helen Vendler: On "Homage to Paul Cezanne"

Throughout the volume Wright persistently imagines himself dead, dispersed, re-elemented into the natural order. ("And I am not talking about reincarnation at all. At all. At all.") In focusing on earth, in saying that "salvation doesn't exist except through the natural world," Wright approaches Cézanne's reverence for natural forms, geometrical and substantial ones alike. China Trace is meant to have "a journal-like, everyday quality," but its aphorisms resemble pensées more than diary jottings, just as its painters and poets (Morandi, Munch, Trakl, Nerval) represent the arrested, the composed, the final, rather than the provisional, the blurred, or the impressionistic. China Trace is in fact one long poem working its desolation by accretion; it suffers in excerpts. Its mourning echoes need to be heard like the complaint of doves--endless, reiterative, familiar, a twilight sound:


There is no light for us at the end of the light.

No one redeems the grass our shadows lie on.


Each night, in its handful of sleep, the mimosa blooms.

Each night the future forgives.

inside us, albino roots are starting to take hold.


. . .


If China Trace can be criticized for an unrelenting elegiac fixity, nonetheless its consistency gives it incremental power. its deliberateness, its care in motion, its slow placing of stone on stone, dictate our reading it as construction rather than as speech. It is not surprising that as a model Wright has chosen Cézanne, that most architectural of painters. . . .

Wright's eight-poem sequence "Homage to Cézanne" builds up, line by line, a sense of the omnipresent dead. Wright's unit here is the line rather than the stanza, and the resulting poem sounds rather like the antiphonal chanting of psalms: one can imagine faint opposing choruses singing the melismatic lines:


The dead fall around us like rain.


They come down from the last clouds in the late light for the last time


And slip through the sod.


They lean uphill and face north.


Like grass,


They bend toward the sea, they break toward the setting sun.


Wright does this poetry of the declarative sentence very well, but many poets have learned this studied simplicity, even this poetry of the common noun. What is unusual in Wright is his oddity of imagery within the almost too-familiar conventions of quiet, depth, and profundity. As he layers on his elemental squares and blocks of color, the surprising shadow or interrupting boulder emerge as they might in a Cézanne:


High in the night sky the mirror is hauled up and unsheeted.

In it we twist like stars.


To Wright, death is as often ascent as burial; we become stars, like Romeo, after death, as often as roses. . . .Everyone's dead are ubiquitous: we all "sit out on the earth and stretch our limbs, / Hoarding the little mounds of sorrow laid up in our hearts." On the other hand, the oracular mode sacrifices the conversational, and Wright evanesces under the touch in his wish to be dead (or saved), to enlarge the one inch of snowy rectitude in his living heart into the infinite ice of the tomb. . . .

The hunger for the purity of the dead grows, in these poems, almost to a lust. . . .

Helen Vendler: On "Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane"

In a grand poem already anthologized by Dudley Randall in his excellent collection, The Black Poets (1971), Knight tells of his family ("The Idea of Ancestry"): "Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black / faces. . . . / They stare / across the space at me sprawling on my bunk. I know--mine." Another poem immortalizes a moment of prison despair; "Hard Rock Returns to Prison From the Hospital for the Criminal Insane":


Hard Rock was "known not to take no shit

From nobody," and he had the scars to prove it:

Split purple lips, lumped ears, welts above

His yellow eyes, and one long scar that cut

Across his temple and plowed through a thick

Canopy of kinky hair.


Hard Rock goes under, lobotomized, as the poem knows he will, but the lumps and the welts stay in the poem unrepaired and unrepentant. Knight's other side voices a longing no less deep than the yearning of the spirituals it remembers in its wish for Mississippi.


One day we shall all go back--

we shall surely all go back (down home. . .

and the shame will leave our children's eyes (down home ...

Helen Vendler: On "The Willowware Cup"

As a historian of the phases of sensuality, Merrill is unequaled in our century. His best poetry (a prism of the opalescent spectrum of the sensual) describes moments so elusive to specification that his founding a music for them is a genuinely startling act. Episodes of intense sensations are extinguished as passion but sustained as art. Flashing with ironies and inventions, rapid in movement, intricate in language, these poems dazzle before they convince, and convince, subsequently, because of their dazzle (the right way for a poem to work). In "Willowware Cup," for instance, love undergone becomes a tattoo: "like ink in flesh, blue anchor // Needled upon drunkenness while its destroyer / Full steam departs, the stigma throbbing, intricate -- / Only to blend into a crazing texture."

Helen Vendler: On "Negro Minstrelsy" in The Dream Songs

The fiction of The Dream Songs .. is that its two protagonists are "end men" in an American minstrel show. This common form of vaudeville (still seen in my childhood) presented, while the curtain was lowered between vaudeville acts, banter between two "end men," one standing at stage left, one at stage right, in front of the closed curtain. The end men were white actors in exaggerated blackface, whol told jokes in an exaggerated Negro dialect, one acting the taciturn "straight man" to the buffoonery of the other. They addressed each other by nicknames such as "Tambo" or "Mr. Bones" (the latter a name referring to dice). The unnamed Friend in The Dream Songs, acting as straight man and speaking to Henry in Negro dialect, addresses Henry as "Mr. Bones" or variants thereof. Henry, the voluble, infantile, and plaintive chief speaker, is the lyric "I" of the songs: he never addresses his "straight man" by name. Henry’s own colloquial idiolect (sometimes represented in third-person free indirect discourse or second-person self-reproach) is not exclusively framed in any one dialect, but rather exhibits many dialectical influences, from slang to anarchism to baby-talk.

One can see that there is no integrated Ego in The Dream Songs: there is only Conscience at one end of the stage and the Id at the other, talking to each other across a Void, never able to find common ground. …

From Helen Vendler, The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition (The T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures at the University of Kent), (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1995), 35-36.

Helen Vendler: On "Dream Song 384"

The aesthetic problem Berryman sets himself when he decides to write actions and discourse for his unmanageable Id has been solved here, as elsewhere, by relying on broad cartoon-like strokes. The Id is represented in several ways: by incoherence of affect ("O ho alas alas / When will indifference come"); by childish regression of action and words ("I’d like to scrabble till I got right down / away down")’ by interspersed melodramatic nonsense-syllables of revenge ("open ha to see," "grave clothes he & then"); and by a temporary abandon (between the sixteenth and seventeenth line) of end-punctuation of any sort. The final tableau – as Henry in self-pluralizing wish ("we") takes an ax to his father’s casket, rips the decayed wrappings of the corpse, and then drives the ax into his father’s body – resembles in its components an episode out of Poe, but it forgoes Poe’s ghastly ceremoniousness of action and diction: this is why the Dream Songs deserve the name of "cartoon." The reductiveness and garishness and violence we associate with cartoons – and do not normally associate with our "sensitive" therapeutically-presented selves – are Berryman’s startling comic means toward representation of his irrepressible Id. Cartoon-strokes enable him to render his life-donnée in literary terms, at the considerable cost of an occluded and alienated authorial self, concealed behind its puppets.


From Helen Vendler, The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition (The T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures at the University of Kent), (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1995), 51-52.

Helen Vendler: On "Dream Song 45"

Dream Song #45 is a list-poem enumerating predicaments which at the time certainly seemed to be ruin (being discovered naked with one's girlfriend by her enraged father, for instance) but which proved, when real Ruin came, to be merely impostors. This Dream Song of Ruin preceded by its earlier impostors is verbally organized by two almost identical lines. In the first, we hear Henry's illiterate boozy remark about ruin, 'He thought they was old friends'; in the second, we perceive that Henry has been shocked into literacy by reality: 'But he noted now that: they were not old friends.' Between these two lines the cartoon-strip of successive pseudo-ruins unrolls. until it dissolves at the encounter with the real thing:

. . . it differs from its prose eqnivalent not only in its shapeliness (produced by grammatical and syntactic parallelism) but also by its reductiveness: Henry and ruin, old pals. cross paths (as if in the successive frames of a cartoon strip) round the world; then ruin, old friend, mysteriously vanishes and a horrible allegorical stranger, saying in effect' I RUIN AM,' fixes Henry with a toxic dissolution-beam, making Henry evanesce into nothingness before our very eyes.

from The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Helen Vendler

Helen Vendler: On "Dream Song 14"

. . . when the depressive side of bi-polar illness is ascendant in Berryman, Henry is represented as paralyzed by a pervasive apathy, an unwillingness to play even his own game. Here is the opening of Dream Song #14:

[lines 1-12]

Berryman's debt to the lyric tradition appears in Henry's appeal to Romantic gestures—'The sky flashes, the great sea yearns, / we ourselves flash and yearn.' On the other hand, in Henry's frame of mind the entire Western literary tradition, from Homer on, is of absolutely no use, and so itself becomes a lower-case cartoon in which Achilles' wrath is reduced to 'plights & gripes.' 'Literature bores me,' says Henry, seeing himself in his plights and gripes' as bad as [a lower-case] achilles.' The Dream Songs visibly adopt certain features of the long autobiographical poem as we find it in Don Juan, which originated, in our literature, the spectacle of an impulsive and greedy protagonist commented upon by a worldly authorial voice.

from The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Helen Vendler

Helen Vendler: On "Dream Song 29"

The comparable Dream Song #29 turns to Western art, as Henry recalls a Duccio or Simone Martini profile of the Virgin Mary or a saint. Like the Japanese stone garden, this medieval profile—an art-object combining spiritual stillness with aesthetic mastery—reproaches in the way the socialized Superego or even the Conscience cannot. Its reproach is silent, not oral; aesthetic, not ethical; spiritual, not social or legal. Berryman sets his Sienese icon against Henry's obsessive anxiety and sexual guilt, and reproduces in #29 the anguished and irrational thought-processes caused by Henry's conflict of values. The poem begins with the stifling and perpetual weight that torments Henry's guilty conscience, and ends with a baffled sense of its erroneousness: . . .

The cognitive dissonance between terrified conviction ('I have murdered a woman') and absurd enumerative ratiocination ('Nobody's missing') results in the obsessive and habitual, 'often' of the insomniac reckoning. Henry would be relieved if someone were missing; it would make his conviction of guilt rational, and he could reconnect his split pieces. But this solace is denied him.

Behind a lyric such as this there lie the religious lyrics of grief and guilt written by Herbert and Hopkins. But although Freudian poetry is sometimes called "confessional poetry," one can see in the instance of Dream Song #29 that it I often precisely not "confessional" poetry – there is, as the poem demonstrates, no sin to confess, and no way to make amends, no one by whom to be absolved. The therapeutic hour is concerned less with "confession" than with an analysis – carried out by various means – of what is wrongly "confessed." … In Freudian terms, Henry’s free-floating guilt would be seen as the sign of something repressed, not consciously available. The structure of the poem, which locates the "grave Sienese face" between the two stanzas of Henry’s guilt, suggests that what he has repressed is behavior consonant with that austere profile, the sort of behavior he still believes in, if in an unconscious way. The repression of chastity, the repression of asceticism, the repression of spiritual gravity, are odd things to mention in a Freudian context. But for Merryman, the adult repression of his youthful religious Superego is as great a cause of guilt as would be, in classic Freudian terms, the repression of libido.



From Helen Vendler, The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition (The T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures at the University of Kent), (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1995), 49-50.

Helen Vendler: On "Dream Song 4"

Dream Song #4, a farcical sketch of Henry in a restaurant lusting after someone else's young wife: this is Berryman' s picture of the Id at work, checked in its lust by Conscience. It is a poem unthinkable in American poetry before the postwar Freudian era: . . .

It is Berryman's gaiety of writing, his joyous blasphemy of traditional love-poetry, that wins us in this Song. The parodic aspects are several: the planctus takes place in a restaurant; the lady is reduced to her body engaged in the inglorious act of eating; she is guarded not only by her husband but by a comic superfluity of 'four other people'; the Petrarchan lover's cry of adoration is debased to 'You are the hottest one . . . / Henry's dazed eyes /have enjoyed'; the lover continues to eat, and does not omit to notice that it is spumoni that he is, even if despairingly, eating; the lover's jealousy makes him cartoon the husband as 'The slob beside her'; the lover's admiration of the lady's beauty suddenly descends to a crude interest in her buttocks ('What wonders is / she sitting on, over there?'); and the conventional eloignement of the lady takes on tones of science fiction: 'She might as well be on Mars.' The lover's comment is of the fist-to-brow soap-opera kind—'Where did it all go wrong?'

The growling, resentful, truculent, unmanageable Henry is an enviable comic creation, and his repertoire of semiotic reference, old and new, is lovably various in both serious and parodic ways. We become marginally convinced, by such a poem, that the troubadours were Henrys too, and that Berryman is merely uncovering the unsalubrious, but oddly solacing, layer of psychic squalor beneath high artistic convention. And yet, at the same time, we see the negative of this truth: that even the lustful and coarse-minded Henry wants to call his 'feeding girl' by a name like 'Brilliance,' to see her eyes as 'jewelled' and her company as a 'feast.' These are all metaphors straight out of the love-tradition, and what is exhilarating in Berryman as a writer is the balance between the parodic and the ecstatic that he keeps alive, as he reveals both the body's abject yearning for idealization, and the mind's conspiratorial desire for buttocks.


from The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition. Cambridge, Harvard UP, 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Helen Vendler


Helen Vendler on: "Malevolent Flippancy"

It was not the ethical parables of the Bible, or the fertile suggestiveness of Greek myth, but the grim tit-for-tat of fairy tales--where the unsuccessful suitors are murdered, or the witch is burned in her own oven, or the wicked wolf is himself sliced open--that appealed to Sexton's childlike and vengeful mind. The fairy tales and folktales put forth a child's black-and-white ethics, with none of the complexity of the Gospels, and none of the worldliness of the Greeks. It is characteristic of Sexton that she did use the myth of Prometheus--which reads like one of her folktales, with its rebel hero, its avenging father-god, and its grotesque evisceration by a vulture.

Sexton looked, usually in vain, for ways to stabilize her poems outside her increasingly precarious self. She based one sequence on horoscope readings, another on the remarks of her therapist "Doctor Y," another on the life of Jesus, another on the Psalms, another on beasts. The only group that succeeds more often than it falls is the group based on folktales, Transformations. The tales--Snow White, Rapunzel, Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, the Frog Prince, Briar Rose, Hansel and Gretel, and others--gave Sexton a structure of the sort she was usually unable to invent for herself, a beginning, a middle, and an end. Her poems tend, on the whole, to begin well, to repeat themselves, to sag in the middle, and to tail off. She had an instinct for reiteration; she wanted to say something five times instead of once. Her favorite figure of speech is anaphora, where many lines begin with the same phrase, a figure which causes, more often than not, diffuseness and spreading of effect rather than concentration of intensity:

... I will conquer myself. I will dig up the pride. I will take scissors

The tales, as I have said, matched her infantile fantasy; they gave her a clean trajectory; they turned her away from the morass of narcissism. But most of all, they enabled her as a satirist. . . . Sexton's aesthetically most realized tone is precisely a malevolently flippant one, however distasteful it might seem to others.


From "Malevolent Flippancy." The New Republic (1981)